The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 126: Scared Indoors, part 1

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

They came, they saw, they almost bought it. Are these the kind of stories that inspire you to get into the wilderness? This week on The WildeBeat; Scared Indoors, part 1.

[Intro Music & SFX; 0:07.6 and under]

News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number one twenty six, made possible our members.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Ask an African bushman whether he has any fear of sleeping outdoors, and I suspect he wouldn't understand the question. If you went back a couple of hundred years and asked the original people of North America the same question, I'll bet you'd get the same response. Noted author Richard Louv puts it this way.

RICHARD LOUV: For tens of thousands of years, for eons, all of human history and prehistory, children went outside and spent much of their formative years either playing or working in nature.

STEVE: Richard is focused on children in his comments, but he might as well be talking about anybody. These days, it's not at all hard to find somebody who thinks quite the opposite of that African bushman.

RAYMOND GARCIA: No, I really don't really want to be in the middle of complete nowhere.

STEVE: I met Raymond Garcia, from Norwalk, California, in Yosemite Valley last summer.

RAYMOND GARCIA: Pitchin' a tent right next to nature, I mean over here, ...there's bears... but at least you kinda have a place to go or run, but... I wouldn't really necessarily want to spend my night in the middle of complete nowhere... I mean, I just like to take at least a shower once a day... and you really can't, you know, bathe up in the river I guess.

STEVE: I don't mean to pick on Raymond, because he's actually pretty typical of people I meet in the more developed areas of wilderness parks. They can't really imagine themselves spending a night in the wilderness. They're afraid of things they're not familiar with, like Yosemite's relatively tame black bears, and they can't really envision the other skills they'd need to get along without the conveniences of modern living. So how did so many of us become scared of living in the wilderness, even for a just couple of days?

STEVE: Well, I have a theory about this. And I'll need your help to figure out whether it accurately explains this phenomenon. I'll start with a couple of rather obvious assumptions. First, most of what the majority of Americans believe and understand about the world just beyond their immediate sensory experience comes from mass media. And secondly, if you say something to people often enough, even if it's not really true, if they don't have a reason to question it, they'll probably believe it.

STEVE: And so my theory is that the media sensationalizes the tragic things that happen to people visiting the wilderness, and that they portray most outdoor activities as extreme sports. By extreme sports, I mean hazardous activities involving great physical risk. And because these are the kinds of ideas we get most from mass media about outdoor adventure, many people are scared indoors by these messages.

FITZ CAHALL: I've worked as a freelance journalist for a lot of years writing for... sort of like extreme sports publications...

STEVE: Fitz Cahall is the creator and producer of the popular Internet audio program, The Dirtbag Diaries.

FITZ CAHALL: ...and I really found that there was an emphasis placed upon sort of, not the personal aspects of being in the outdoors, and doing these kinds of sports in the outdoors, and yet there was a ...really great cultural side to ...a lot of these things we do, a lot of these places we visit, and the experiences they create for us.

STEVE: Fitz tells some stories in his show about people going out for extreme fun, and barely making it out alive.

FITZ CAHALL: Yeah, I think that of the really good ones we have is actually a story by a National Geographic photographer, who's name is John Burcham. And John was doing the first traverse of the Alaska Range. You know, six hundred and fifty mile long traverse, ...and the story, essentially is John has to leave the group ten days early to get back to his sister's wedding, and, ...he's obviously very, very experienced in wilderness travel, and especially at this point is very great shape, has the skills to do all this, and has been doing it for the last three months.

[Clip: No Big Deal]

FITZ CAHALL: He rolled up over the ridge, and looked down into the small valley, and immediately, he knew he was in trouble, a couple of hundred feet below him, a mother grizzly with three cubs in tow sniffed the air.

JOHN BURCHAM: When you're by yourself all of a sudden, that's a big problem. When you're in a group of four, your a group of four strong, and a bear, you know we had accounted several bears along the Sang rivers, everything, you know, we were a strong group of four. That's when it just, my gut sank, you know, I am by myself out here.

[end clip]

STEVE: And when you first heard this story, what was your reaction to maybe setting out to do something similar for yourself?

FITZ CAHALL: You know, I have to say that a traverse of the Alaska Range to me does not sound that much fun. I don't know why, it sounds grueling. You know, certainly I love being out in the backcountry, I love spending a week at a time, but spending four months of carrying eighty pound packs on my back doesn't necessarily want to make me get out and re-traverse the Alaska Range.

STEVE: Another person who did traverse a large swath of the Alaska wilderness in a rather spectacular adventure is Ryan Jordan. Ryan is the founder and publisher of Backpacking Light Magazine. Backpacking Light, as the name makes clear, is about going into the backcountry with less gear, sometimes far less than is traditionally considered necessary.

RYAN JORDAN: Well, ...we went out there knowing full well that we weren't going to be a model for everyone's future backpacking adventures. And the goal with that trek was really an internal one between myself and my partners, Roman Dial and Jason Geck. And our goal was to see how far we could trek, by pushing the envelope, using light gear, light footwear, etc. So there was an element of risk that was inherent in that, that, you know, I don't see to be the everyday model of outdoor adventure, and that certainly wasn't the intention.

STEVE: I suppose an average member of the public looks at the bulk of the media they see about a wilderness trip; they don't see the family that walks three and a half miles into Sequoia National Park, or somewhere even easier to travel in. They see the spectacular stories of an adventure like yours as an example of people that do get into the wilderness.

RYAN JORDAN: Absolutely. And I think there's a difference in responses depending on who these people are, and some of them will look at an adventure like that and say, "there's no way I'd do something like that." It just doesn't interest them, there's too much suffering or risk involved, and it just doesn't connect to them, and that's OK.

FITZ CAHALL: Certain stories are always going to attract people. I mean, there are stories about... skiers that are killed in avalanches, and then for some reason that inspires some segment of our community to get involved in backcountry skiing, ...and on the other hand, it to a lot of others it sort of repels them from going into the backcountry... And I think that there's also a lot of mainstream journalists aren't always that familiar with being outdoors, and doing these kinds of sports, and that not everything is about being extreme, or getting radical... There are ways to have incredible, empowering, and safe experiences in the wilderness, that are really fun, and are completely worthy of telling stories about afterwards.

STEVE: Andrew Skurka is another extreme adventurer. For almost seven months, he walked six thousand, eight hundred and seventy five miles from the Grand Canyon, across the desert, up the Pacific Crest, along the Canadian border, and back down the continental divide.

ANDREW SKURKA: The thing that probably bothers me most is the media's portrayal of the outdoors and extreme outdoor adventures is the epic component, that danger factor... And the media constantly reinforcing the image of the outdoors being this wild scary place that's full of grizzly bears and rattlesnakes, I think ...that's really where I get concerned. And even some of the television programs that are on this week will present the outdoors to you in a way that's very dramatic, and dangerous, and in order to be out here need all these survival skills, and that's just not the case. For most people, their outdoor experience is very calm, and safe and fun and that sort of thing.

STEVE: Now here's where we could use your help. Can you give us examples of mainstream media you've read, listened to, or watched that scared you away from trying what you saw. Better yet, how about examples of media describing wilderness adventures that seemed completely within your reach and looked like a good time? And I'm not talking about niche publications for enthusiasts; I'm interested in stories that anyone might see or hear. As we're putting the finishing touches on part two, we'd like to include some of your comments. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373, or send e-mail to comments at WildeBeat dot net.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number one twenty six. Thank you for listening.

[Closing Music: ends.]

Next time -- Scared Indoors, part 2.

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